The Democracy of Digital Distribution

Digital distribution is arguably the greatest innovation in video games for our generation. Now before the trolls fire up their flamethrowers, I’ll immediately concede that the statement seems absurd on its face. After all, despite all manner of hand waving, one can hardly point to successful merchants in the arena (Xbox Live, Steam, The Apple Store, etc) and say “now there is something new”. Indeed, repackaging what is essentially an online store is unimpressive. But what about advanced features (found only on Xbox Live) like mandatory trial versions with a well integrated purchase option? Oh please. That lesson is culled from ancient texts that speak of the legend of “shareware”, a primitive decades-old form of doing the exact same thing in nearly the exact same way.

So yeah, “innovation” sounds a little out of place.

Now it should go without saying that there’s no hate for folks like Microsoft here. Gathering all their published developers under a single, strict standard is no small task. It’s an impressive display of force that ultimately helps the consumer; however, it’s still just guaranteeing a level of quality equal to a Commander Keen 3.5” floppy from ’91.

So no, the mechanism of digital distribution isn’t innovative. It’s an old idea gone big because kids with pocket change are finally plugged into cheap high-speed Internet, and so far it’s implemented at the absolute bare minimum level.

So what the hell am I talking about then when I say digital distribution is the greatest innovation for our gaming generation? It could just be a sarcastic quip based on the fact that nothing truly significant has happened in games hardware in over five years, and that digital distribution is all that’s really new. Certainly that’s a valid point, but I’ve already gone to great lengths to gripe about that in my five minute micro talk; no need to get a windy, passive aggressive jab in here.

In the parlance of the gaming press, innovation is synonymous with a game design tweak or re-imagining of an old idea, well short of a revolutionary shift but one that invokes the imagination. In the sense that digital distribution has created a massive series of changes within the industry and within game consumers, one can indeed say that it is a force for innovation in that each shift is tangential, a reconfiguration of existing elements.

The catalyst for all this change? The siren song of a worldwide market, and it hits bohemian purists as hard as the get rich quick schemer.

Indie developers looking for experimentation with a low barrier of entry suddenly have a venue to join the mainstream, woo a wider audience, and presumably leave their ad-infested Flash playgrounds behind. At the same time The Apple Store’s wide net for developers has sounded a digital gold rush, and, despite the controversy about its policies, few are turned away. Experimental games like “iShift” find themselves shoulder to shoulder with apps that fart in your face for $0.99 a click.

The individuals in these scenarios are largely unchanged although the arena is new. Similarly, game consumers, usually perched on the much-assailed slippery slope of the digital copyright argument, are suddenly thrust into the mainstream as well. Rather than being in the awkward position of defending the fact that they’d rather steal software than pay for it, they are now in a market that justifies their expectation that content should be nearly or entirely free. By courting micro-transactions, digital distribution keeps the consumer continuously jacked into the process, giving new products the same thumbs up or thumbs down that spares or condemns a gladiator.

And it is where these groups meet, reading between the lines of user comments, riddled as they are with nonsensical spelling errors and emoticons, where things have really changed. Although digital distribution is a melting pot for developers of all shades, given that The Apple Store just surpassed 10 billion downloads, it is a big pot indeed. In this over-saturated market all developers live and die by their visibility. And be you capitalist or artist, exposure is the name of the game.

Ultimately digital distribution has democratized the process of game design, and the only ones truly voting are the consumers. And if there’s one thing that the typical digital downloader has shown, it’s that they are motivated by short term gains alone. They want it cheap or free, they want it aesthetically competitive, and they want it now. And developers are meeting them in the middle. Games are designed by the handful, and they’re scoped out shallower than a teaspoon. Where once it was considered bad form to hold out features until a promised (but not guaranteed) patch, it is now the model to emulate. Cast your net wide, and incrementally flesh out the ideas that snag a bite or two.

It’s this dialog between consumers and developers, this introspective mirror into our identities both as gamers and as game makers, that is the re-imagining, the tweak on an old formula. It’s fascinating, frustrating, and just a little bland. It also blocks out the one-man, single project teams that are often held up as the symbol of this accessible market, instead rewarding those that can commit just a little to many projects at once to mitigate risk.

If it stays here, with neither consumers nor developers kicking out of this global “game design by committee”, then it will truly be a shame. But never before have people been put so close to both the raw talent and the dreck of the game industry, and never before have they been more in control of the product itself. It is an opportunity, albeit one that an individual may not embrace with a single purchase or free download. But what it is is a fascinating meta game, a measurement of all game designers’ influence on the casual market as a whole.

And in that sense, the real game, and the designer’s challenge, starts here.